Environmental Assessment (Scotland) Bill

– in the Scottish Parliament at 3:45 pm on 9th November 2005.

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Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative 3:45 pm, 9th November 2005

The next item of business is a debate on motion S2M-3435, in the name of Ross Finnie, that the Environmental Assessment (Scotland) Bill be passed.

Photo of Ross Finnie Ross Finnie Liberal Democrat 4:01 pm, 9th November 2005

Every bill requires a great deal of collective effort, work and engagement, and this bill is no exception. I thank the Finance Committee, the Subordinate Legislation Committee and, in particular, the members and convener of the Environment and Rural Development Committee for their constructive engagement and positive contribution to the development of the bill.

There was wide consultation, and external bodies spent much time contributing to the positive debate. I thank organisations such as the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, Scottish Natural Heritage, Historic Scotland, Scottish Environment LINK and all those who offered evidence to the Environment and Rural Development Committee and responded to our several consultations.

In environmental terms, this is without any shadow of doubt a landmark bill, which will place on the statute book a wide-ranging approach to strategic environmental assessment. It will ensure that all public sector strategies, plans and programmes with significant environmental effects are assessed and monitored; that awareness is raised of environmental effects and how they may be avoided or mitigated; that there is proper democratic opportunity for people to influence assessment and the resultant decisions; and that the statutory provisions are supported by a robust and flexible administrative framework, ensuring transparency of process. By extending the scope of strategic environmental assessment to cover all public sector strategies, plans and programmes, Scotland is leading the way in Europe in the fight to protect our environmental future. Therefore, the Parliament can be proud of the bill.

The administrative arrangements in Scotland will be unique in the United Kingdom and in Europe. I refer mainly to the SEA gateway—a dedicated team that not only will provide SEA templates, guidance and advice but will review and develop strategic environmental assessment practices to ensure that they are effective. The Executive is committed whole-heartedly to the strategic environmental assessment gateway and sees it as having a central role in SEA implementation.

In introducing strategic environmental assessment, I am mindful of the fact that there may be challenges ahead for those involved in carrying out assessments, but we have sought to minimise the resource impact and to provide for robust but light administrative requirements. Strategic environmental assessment has been designed to work with existing processes, will help to speed implementation and will minimise the impact on resources.

Furthermore, I anticipate savings both in monetary and, more important, environmental terms. For example, strategic environmental assessment will help to avoid the costly remedial action that can result from environmental harm being discovered far too late in the production and implementation of plans. I hope that strategic environmental assessment will make a tremendous contribution to the concept of sustainable development. In my view, resources that are employed in strategic environmental assessment will and must be seen as a positive investment in the future. We are determined to make that investment so that the next generation does not have to pay for mistakes, as it does now; we can no longer live now and pay later.

Strategic environmental assessment ensures assessment and positive action across a broad range of issues: protecting the natural environment; enhancing the built environment; tackling climate change; and respecting our cultural heritage. SEA has the potential to build on and improve our performance in all those areas. There is a great deal to cherish in Scotland's environment and the bill will help to ensure that it stays that way in years to come.

Strategic environmental assessment will further enhance public participation in decision making. The bill will do that by extending public consultation and by requiring that consultee comments must be taken into account. Therefore, strategic environmental assessment has the potential to render public decision making more inclusive and accessible. That puts SEA right at the heart of our drive for environmental justice.

Strategic environmental assessment is designed to improve public decision making by ensuring that decisions are taken within the context of improved understanding of the environmental effects. The bill covers plans in a wide range of areas, from transport and industry through forestry and land use to tourism and telecommunications. Therefore, SEA has the potential to improve public decision making across all sectors, wherever the environment might be affected. Crucially, that means that, in the Executive's current legislative programme, strategic environmental assessment will underpin the proposed reform of our planning legislation.

The bill is strategic, sustainable and supportable.

I move,

That the Parliament agrees that the Environmental Assessment (Scotland) Bill be passed.

Photo of Rob Gibson Rob Gibson Scottish National Party 4:07 pm, 9th November 2005

The debate about environmental assessment represents a step change: we are not at sea on the matter, but SEA will guide us in a direction that will allow this Parliament and our Government to be ahead.

We agree that we want the bill to be carried out to the letter. The reporting process will allow us to review the situation regularly to see how well we are doing. In the debates in the Environment and Rural Development Committee, in which I took considerable part, we gave the bill detailed scrutiny. I thank the minister for his remarks about the committee's scrutiny of the bill.

One of the points that I made early in the debate in the committee was that we need to ensure that what we do in Scotland about things that may damage the environment does not damage the environment in other countries. I am glad to say that one of the criteria for determining the likely significance of the effects on the environment will be their transboundary nature. That provision puts Scotland in a position to consider how our activities affect other people as well as how they affect our lives here.

The bill should deliver consistent and quality assessment. We look forward to seeing how that comes about. The Executive has responded favourably to the debates that we have had about reporting, but to meet the aims of the sustainable development directorate and the imperatives of climate change we will have to be on our guard in ensuring that the framework established by the bill does all that it has been lauded by the minister for doing.

Annual reporting will be of great benefit to us, but it is important that the public are involved in the process. Only a few members will speak in the debate, but I hope that people out there can thank us for creating a framework in which their lives and their environment will be looked after. The Scottish National Party has tried to stiffen the bill in certain areas, although we recognise that the majority of members have not gone along with us on some aspects. We are particularly concerned that the activities of the Ministry of Defence in Scotland could have an adverse effect. We will see whether the provisions of the bill as passed will deal with the issues that we have raised in that respect.

On behalf of the Scottish National Party, I have pleasure in supporting the passage of the bill. We welcome the powers in it in the interests of the people of Scotland and of our environment.

Photo of Alex Johnstone Alex Johnstone Conservative 4:10 pm, 9th November 2005

The Environmental Assessment (Scotland) Bill will revoke and replace the Environmental Assessment of Plans and Programmes (Scotland) Regulations 2004 (SSI 2004/258), which came into effect on 20 July 2004 and which implemented the European directive that has been mentioned many times this afternoon. As well as replacing the regulations, the bill will extend the assessment regime to cover a wider range of plans and programmes than the European directive requires.

The Environment and Rural Development Committee approved the bill at stage 1, but it also highlighted a number of reservations. There is significant concern about the likely resource implications of extending the scope of strategic environmental assessment. The bill's explanatory notes refer to research that the Babtie Group carried out that estimates that the annual cost of SEA to the responsible authorities is likely to be between £7 million and £12.5 million per annum.

In written evidence to the committee, the Confederation of British Industry Scotland stated that it was "very disappointed" that the Executive would extend the European directive; it considered that that was

"at odds with is public statements that the economy is its number one priority," and

"counter to the commitments made to the business community by the UK Government that there would be no further 'goldplating' of EU legislation."

Even Scottish Enterprise stated in its written evidence that the bill should not undermine economic growth; it stated in oral evidence that its concern was based on the need to

"avoid adding to the process delays or excess bureaucracy that might slow down decision making."—[Official Report, Environment and Rural Development Committee Committee, 27 April 2005; c 1833.]

In addition, there are serious concerns about the availability in the public sector of the skills that will be needed to implement the bill and about the likelihood of increased costs as external consultants are employed to take up the slack. COSLA, no less, suggested that, before proceeding with the bill, there should be a series of pilot projects to assess all the implications.

In considering the financial memorandum, the Finance Committee raised concerns about the high burden of costs that local authorities will carry as a result of the bill. In written evidence to the committee, Highland Council stated:

"budget constraints will force Local Authorities to choose between delivering frontline services and meeting their statutory duty to SEA."

The Finance Committee also raised the likelihood of a knock-on effect on forthcoming planning regulation changes and the planning system as a whole.

The Conservatives accept the need for a reasonable and unobtrusive amount of environmental assessment, but we believe that the provision under the existing 2004 regulations is adequate. We have grave reservations about the implications of the bill. We believe that the Executive is following the now familiar route of gold plating European Union regulation. The bill's provisions will impose another layer of unnecessary bureaucracy and will have enormous resource implications for costs and skills. Further, local authorities will be presented with another raft of regulation for which they will be expected to find up to £12 million a year.

The bill's supporters argue that money will be saved and, in the long run, the prevention of damage to the environment will have a cash value. However, Scotland is not experiencing widespread environmental damage from our public bodies—the bill is the wrong approach. By all means, we should put in a safety net to address problems when they arise, but we should not inflict the bill on public bodies that are carrying out their work efficiently and responsibly.

I said in the stage 1 debate that I would attempt at stage 2 to amend out any provision in the bill that was not present in the 2004 regulations. Unfortunately, most of my amendments to that end were rejected on the ground that they would reduce the scope of the bill by 50 per cent or more and so were wrecking amendments and inadmissible. I accept that ruling, but it was an extraordinary admission of the extent to which the scope of the bill has been increased.

We on the Conservative benches will be voting against the bill at decision time.

Photo of Sarah Boyack Sarah Boyack Labour 4:15 pm, 9th November 2005

All of us on the Labour benches are keen to support the bill. It will help us to deliver joined-up thinking and will put our aspirations for sustainable development into practice. The legislation is important. It will mean that all decisions made by Government in Scotland will have to include a more robust consideration of the potential environmental impacts. Such consideration will have to be integrated; it will not be an add-on at the end. Labour members are especially keen that cumulative impact and environmental justice should be considered properly. Decisions have to be shaped and mitigation has to be planned in right at the start.

The bill is about good practice. We have the techniques, but we must ensure that they are applied thoroughly and throughout the decision-making process. The process must be carried out with transparency and openness—key principles of this Parliament.

Large parts of the debates in the Environment and Rural Development Committee at stage 1 and stage 2 were about how we could develop an open and transparent system. I welcome the minister's amendments on pre-screening and on ensuring that the bill does not create loopholes. Labour members agree that the measures in the bill have to be proportionate. The responsible authorities will have to have a degree of flexibility, but they will have to be accountable for their judgments.

The Scottish Parliament should be in no doubt that the bill will require a major culture shift from all our public authorities. Regulations have been in place since July 2004, and experience is being gained from the analysis of pilots that are under way. That experience will have to be built on and developed.

The bill goes beyond the European directive that Alex Johnstone mentioned. The bill deals with plans, programmes and strategies. It would not be appropriate to exclude those from consideration. The bill requires explicit analysis and new expertise; we think that it will lead to a higher quality of decisions. That does not mean that environmental considerations will override our objectives for economic development or social justice, but those considerations will become part of the process of decision making. That will lead to better understanding. We already have such a process in the land-use planning system. Again, we have better-quality decision making.

The Tories have said consistently that they do not want us to go beyond the regulations, and Alex Johnstone has made the arguments again today. At stage 1, John Scott argued that the bill would lead to double the work and double the expense. I believe that that was an exaggeration. There has been no such doubling in the land-use planning system. Mid-career professional training for land-use planners has been required, and that is the kind of training that we will need for people throughout the public sector. However, that will not mean double the effort or double the cost; it will mean a culture shift and it will mean improving on what is happening.

The gateway will be vital in spreading best practice and helping to provide an efficient way of delivering training throughout the responsible authorities. It is important that the consultation authorities have been part of the pilots. That has helped to ensure that the system will work in practice. I am confident that it will.

A key issue will be the level at which SEA takes place. Monitoring of decisions will be important. I very much welcome the minister's commitment in the amendment that responded to the committee's opinion that, in order that we could learn lessons, some form of annual review of the process would be required in the first few years.

The bill strikes the right balance. The important thing is that—through parliamentary scrutiny, through support from ministers, and through the gateway—it is implemented successfully. Annual reporting will help the Scottish Parliament to take ownership of the issue and not see it as being owned by somebody else. Post-legislative scrutiny of bills passed by the Parliament is a vital part of the process.

Alex Johnstone talked about gold plating. I refute what he said. The bill is not about gold plating; it is about best practice, and I warmly welcome the minister's decision to go beyond the regulations. The regulations have been in place for a year and a half and soon the bill will be enacted. We should be absolutely clear that if we do not go for the bill, a number of Government strategies will not be covered by SEA. It would be a great pity if that were to happen. If a member is against the bill, they must be able to argue successfully that environmental assessment should not be built into the national waste strategy, the architecture policy, the harbour plans on the management of recreation and the use of boats in our harbours, the strategy for Scottish tourism and the transport delivery report. It would be ludicrous if such Government policies did not have proper strategic environmental assessment built into them right from the start.

If policies and strategies such as the social justice strategy and Scotland's health strategy are reviewed, they will now be subject to strategic environmental assessment. That can only be good for government in Scotland. If we agree to pass the bill, the prospect is one of joined-up thinking, better decision making and, at the end of the day, better government for Scotland. If a member is against the bill, they will have to be able to justify why such strategies and policies should not be subject to strategic environmental assessment. The argument is a difficult one to make.

The Executive has got it right. The bill is a good example of committee discussion being used to improve the bill. We have had lots of discussion on the detail of the bill and lots of amendments, and the bill is all the better for that. A debate on the regulations would not have let us flag up the issues. Crucially, it would not have let us flag up the concerns of businesses. I hope that we have been able to reassure them on their concerns. If a business or a company is carrying out work on behalf of the Executive, it should be subject to strategic environmental assessment through the policy process—that is the right thing to do. At the end of the day, the bill is not about creating greater costs for business but about getting better value for money.

That is why we on the Labour benches strongly support the bill. We are delighted to see it reach stage 3 today. We will all be voting for it.

Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour

We move to the open debate. I call Rosie Kane.

Photo of Rosie Kane Rosie Kane SSP 4:21 pm, 9th November 2005

First, if I may, I take the opportunity to mention Colin MacLeod, who died suddenly last week at the age of 37. Colin was a close friend and a champion of the community and the environment. I met him on the M77 motorway protest; Mr Gordon and other members may be aware of him.

Colin MacLeod understood that human beings are not separate from the environment but are part of it. He worked hard all his life to keep alive that belief. Had he not left us last week, Colin would have been in the public gallery today, watching us as we steer the bill to its destination. As I said, Colin rightly said that people are not separate from the environment. During our lifetime, we have a duty to protect the planet. We should do so not only for our sake but for the sake of future generations. In our lifetime, we are mere custodians of the planet.

Members of the Scottish Socialist Party will vote for the bill at decision time today. That said, we feel that the bill has not gone far enough. The Executive is always saying that things should be made more transparent and accountable, so why has it made exemptions for financial plans and private companies? The Executive has also told us that it supports fairness, so why has it allowed a system in which it will act as the arbiter in disputes in which it is involved?

The Executive says that it cares about the environment and yet it has failed to include in the bill targets on emissions and recycling, condemning future generations of communities to even more misery. It talks about environmental gold plating, but it does not want to seek the advice of NHS Health Scotland on the environmental effects on children who have to breathe the fumes from developments such as the M74 northern extension. That issue needs to be seen alongside the lack of a third-party right of appeal in the forthcoming planning reforms.

What could have been an excellent bill to provide environmental protection for communities has turned into a business-as-usual-for-developers bill—a big business charter. Members are in the chamber today to debate, amend and vote on the Environmental Assessment (Scotland) Bill, but if we do not get it right, in future we will be debating the bill on flooding, the bill on poison and the bill on ill effects on health, all of which will be hefty.

The critical issue will be the interpretation of the drafting in the bill. Today, we attempted—unsuccessfully—to make the wording clearer. I hope that people will be careful about how they interpret the bill. I also hope that we get a cleaner, greener Scotland.

Photo of Mr Mark Ruskell Mr Mark Ruskell Green 4:24 pm, 9th November 2005

My colleagues and I are looking forward to voting for the Environmental Assessment (Scotland) Bill, which goes further than the progressive European directive. I hope that the bill will lead Europe as a good example of how the concept of SEA can be extended.

I thank the official report, the committee clerks and the Scottish Parliament information centre for their help and analysis of the issues and their tolerance of some of the to-ings and fro-ings of amendment drafting at stages 2 and 3.

SEA is a new tool in the box to help us to fashion a sustainable Scotland and ensure that the environment, as well as economic growth and social justice, is understood in decision making. Those three elements of sustainability need to be understood together if we are to deliver real progress in Scotland. I hope that the focus on the environmental component will help us to fight the war against climate change, which threatens the economy as well as social justice throughout the world.

The next session of the Scottish Parliament will be the testing ground for the legislation. There is still considerable uncertainty about many aspects; that uncertainty could have been avoided if the Executive had accepted a number of the amendments that were lodged at stages 2 and 3. There will be a need for detailed scrutiny by the Environment and Rural Development Committee in session 3.

The commitments that have been made at stage 2 and today, as reported in the Official Report, will be as important as the words in the bill. I hope that the commitment given by ministers to annual reporting, and the commitment given to a more open pre-screening process, will allow that robust scrutiny to take place. However, I am slightly disappointed that the groundbreaking potential of the bill was not met by a more secure commitment to a gateway body, which would have acted as a hub for best practice. Two types of flexible but statutory gateway, with no straitjackets attached, were presented but flung out at stage 2. The important functions of co-ordination and support will be vital if the new thinking on SEA is to be mainstreamed across the public and private sectors. I fear that we will have a huge way to go after the bill is enacted to achieve that shift, which is why such gateway functions are vital.

On exemptions and where the bill will not apply, it became clear at stage 2 that the nuclear power policies of Mr Blair at Westminster will never come under the ambit of the legislation. That is not the fault of the Executive, but it is a weakness of the devolution settlement. While it seems likely that Ministry of Defence plans to build new Navy, Army and Air Force InstitutesNAAFI—stores in Scotland will come under intense SEA scrutiny, plans to bomb our coasts will be considered at the discretion of the MOD.

We will wait to see which private companies the minister chooses to bring in under the mischief of the bill. However, I am surprised that the Tories are against a bill that could force private utilities to reveal strategies behind new power lines. People in Perthshire will find that particularly interesting. Perhaps the Tories do not want to face up to the facts behind the need for transmission.

The weasel words "minimal effect" are still in the bill, which no doubt will trouble some legal minds and delight others as a potential loophole. I am sure that that will lead to the creation of legal precedent before long.

In conclusion, the bill might be imperfect, but it is still a useful tool. I hope that ministers and decision makers will use it wisely. However, just as the M74 public inquiry showed clear evidence of environmental impact and was ignored, so an SEA can be ignored if ministers choose to ignore it.

The SEA process can never make the decisions—nor should it. Responsibility still lies with politicians to deliver progress that allows the future aspirations of the people of Scotland to be met in a healthy and sustaining environment.

Photo of Nora Radcliffe Nora Radcliffe Liberal Democrat 4:29 pm, 9th November 2005

People throughout Scotland will be cursing us because of the bill's implications for them. However, I confidently believe that once they have got to grips with them they will see and appreciate, and even enjoy and take satisfaction from, the benefits of better, more balanced decision making, and the downstream benefits of thorough work done at strategic level.

A great many people who are employed in the public sector will have to take on board the bill's requirements and develop new skills and expertise—and they will do so. If the legislation works as it should, the practices must become embedded in-house; they cannot be delivered by routinely bringing in consultants. That is why I welcome the Executive's work in the past few months to develop templates, advice and guidance to encourage and support in-house delivery. I also welcome the commitment to continue the SEA gateway as a source of advice and guidance and as a clearing house for sharing best practice. The gateway will also enable better sharing of basic data so that bodies do not duplicate effort in collecting and collating relevant and useful facts and figures.

The register of plans and programmes that have been screened out of the necessity to undergo an SEA will allow scrutiny that will promote consistency and eliminate cheating. On whether budgets should be included, I agree with the conclusion that plans drive budgets, not the other way round, and that any budget will be captured within the assessment of the plan, programme or strategy with which it is associated. I am comfortable with the Executive's view on where the MOD fits into the bill. I am pleased that there will be annual reporting for at least the first five years after the legislation is implemented, which will be a safeguard to ensure on-going parliamentary scrutiny of how the legislation is working and which will throw up any difficulties or issues that need to be dealt with along the way.

The bill will have a significant impact on public policy and public services. To be effective, the bill must effect a huge culture change. While local authorities and other public bodies are nervous about the financial and staffing implications, the bill is not about increasing the cost of strategic-level decision making, but about changing mindsets. It is seen as completely normal and necessary to evaluate the financial and social impacts of different options in the preparation of any plan, programme or strategy. The bill will merely add to those aspects the thorough evaluation of environmental options, which will lead to more balanced decisions that are likely to ensure more sustainable action.

If the strategic environmental assessment of plans, programmes and strategies works properly, it will deliver wider consideration of environmental impacts and of the impacts of alternative courses of action; proactive assessment of environmental impacts; the strengthening of environmental impact assessments of individual projects; systematic and effective consideration of the environment at higher tiers of decision making; public consultation and participation on environmental issues; and a high degree of transparency. If we pass the bill, Scotland will lead the way on strategic environmental assessment in the United Kingdom and the European Union. We are going further than the European legislation requires, but that is good environmental practice, not gold plating.

The bill will weave a green thread through government at all levels. I am proud to be a member of the Liberal Democrats—the realistic green party of Scottish politics—and of the Parliament, which is about to pass a bill that will result in Scotland putting the environment at the core of the delivery of public services. The bill will be good for Scotland, the environment, sustainable development and everyone who lives and works here—I commend it to the Parliament.

Photo of Alex Johnstone Alex Johnstone Conservative 4:33 pm, 9th November 2005

In my opening remarks, I made clear the Conservative party's view on the bill. In closing, I will make one or two remarks about the way in which the Executive has handled the bill. Given the Executive's stated policy objectives, the bill serves the purpose that the Executive set out. I commend the work of the Environment and Rural Development Committee. In the stage 1 inquiry—my experience of which was unfortunately cut short, as I moved to another committee—an awful lot of issues arose, but the Executive gave strong responses to them.

In members' speeches, we have heard the repeated theme that the bill exceeds the demands that were placed on us by the European directive. Regulations can be interpreted in different ways by different people, but I have seen too many examples of Governments in this country, especially in recent years, seeking to endorse European regulations, going further than was demanded of them and, as a result, imposing expenses on various industries and private companies. The danger with the bill is that we will exert further financial pressure on public organisations that are trying to carry out serious and important public works.

I made it clear that I did not think that there was a crisis that we need to address through the bill. If it is passed, which I strongly suspect it will be, I will be one of the ones sitting back, watching its progress and trying to ensure that it does not have the ill effects that I fear it might deliver.

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party 4:35 pm, 9th November 2005

I sat on the Environment and Rural Development Committee through stage 1, I spoke in the stage 1 debate, I sat through stage 2 and I am now the second-last speaker in this debate, so I am not sure that I can add a whole lot to what has been said.

I was going to say that the bill was full of a lot of technical issues and non-controversial but, in their usual open and constructive manner, the ministers rejected every single amendment that was lodged by Opposition members during the process. However, ministers lodged amendments of their own, which I welcome—perhaps that shows that the committee exercised power in persuading them to do so.

The SNP welcomes the bill and will vote for it—unlike the Tories. I am always taken aback—although perhaps I should not be too surprised—by how the Tories always try to block progress in the Scottish Parliament, which they opposed in the first place. Only last week, their leadership contender David Cameron said that the environment was going to be one of his big priorities. He said that he was going to pay visits, that he was going to change the Tory party and that the party was going to win votes by caring for the environment in the future. No wonder he has cancelled his visit to Scotland—he must have second-guessed the position that the Tory party in Scotland would take on this progressive bill, which will work in favour of Scotland's environment. Once again, the Scottish Tories have let down the environment. It is clear that they are stuck in the past.

I add the SNP's thanks to everyone who has helped the committee—researchers in the Parliament, the clerks to the committee and the outside organisations who passed to members their advice and information. It is encouraging to see the environment back on the agenda, with more legislation that is going to help Scotland's environment before us today. The bill is significant, for the reasons that many people have given already. It makes perfect sense to incorporate environmental considerations in the decision-making process as early as possible to avoid problems occurring at a later stage.

It is also encouraging that we will pass the bill today. The public sector will have to carry out environmental assessments of its strategies, plans and policies. Let us not forget that the public sector in Scotland accounts for 50 per cent of gross domestic product. In a couple of years the Government's budget will be up to £30 billion. Considerable expenditure will take place in Scotland, and, of course, that expenditure will impact on the environment. That is why it is encouraging that all the decisions and strategies behind that huge expenditure will have to take into account the impact on the environment.

Photo of Mr Mark Ruskell Mr Mark Ruskell Green

Does the member agree that one of the things that drive up public sector spending is continual public inquiries for developments such as power lines, because no SEA was conducted early on? Is that not a clear example of how SEA can save public sector spending?

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party

Yes. I have a lot of sympathy with the point that the member makes. We have to have more joined-up policy in the Scottish Parliament. Tomorrow morning the SNP will be bringing a debate on energy, one of the themes of which will be the need for joined-up thinking on such big strategic issues.

Many members made the good point that the bill will mean that there has to be a culture change in public organisations. We have to ensure that we do not walk away from the people who have to implement the bill after today's debate. We have had encouraging words from the ministers. There is going to be support and training for staff in the public sector; work will be done to identify the data that are required so that staff can carry out the assessments properly, particularly in relation to health; and guidance on a range of subjects will be provided. It is important to provide such support.

It is a pity that we did not secure the gateway in the bill. Members tried to do so, but failed without the support of the Government. The theme that has run through the debate is the need for transparency and openness, particularly in the pre-screening procedure. We all welcome the fact that the Government has accepted the need to publish an annual report.

Finally, to help Scotland's environment, it is one thing to have the public authorities on board but we also have to give attention to ensuring that the public get on board as well in the next few years. The public, not just public authorities, have to play a part. We have to encourage a change of behaviour on the part of the public to ensure that, when people make decisions in their everyday lives, they also think about the environmental consequences. When we reach that point, there will be a sea change in the way in which the people of Scotland treat our environment.

The Scottish Parliament has been good for the environment, and this is another bill that is worthy of support. It again vindicates those parties—all parties bar the Tories—that campaigned for the advent of this institution. The Parliament needs more powers but at least it is making progress in some areas in which it has some powers. That is a good thing for Scotland. I urge Parliament to support this legislation.

Photo of Rhona Brankin Rhona Brankin Labour 4:41 pm, 9th November 2005

It is a pleasure to close this debate on a bill that we consider an important one that will be of real benefit to the environment and the democratic process in Scotland.

Scotland must continue to develop and grow and, as it does, we have an ever greater need to understand the impact of that development on the environment. Wherever possible, we must reduce or, better still, avoid negative environmental impacts. SEA will play a significant part in that.

Under SEA, every public sector plan across every aspect of government should have its environmental impacts clearly assessed. That applies not only to plans with an environmental or land-use focus but to all plans that could have a significant impact on the environment. SEA provides for greater public involvement in decision making. It demands that ways to avoid or mitigate environmental impact are set out and that the on-going impact of plans be monitored.

With any new measure, it is important that the implementation is well planned and that support is in place. Comprehensive guidance for the bill will be produced and SEA templates to support practitioners are already available. Experience is being gained by public officials working under the current regulations and I believe that we are well prepared for successful implementation.

The SEA gateway has been established to act as the focal point for administration and policy advice. The gateway is, along with the consultation authorities, part of a light administrative model to support SEA. I believe that we have got the balance right between keeping bureaucracy to a minimum and offering support to public authorities that must carry out SEA. In that regard, I am particularly disappointed that the Conservatives are going to oppose the bill.

I, too, want to offer my thanks to the scrutinising committees, especially the Environment and Rural Development Committee, for their valuable input to the bill. By adding reporting and pre-screening registration, even greater transparency in public policy making will be achieved.

The bill places the environment at the heart of the decision-making process, further supporting sustainable development and environmental justice. I commend it to Parliament.

Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour

Since we are ahead of schedule, I suspend the meeting until 4.59.

Meeting suspended.

On resuming—